How brilliant must it be to work for Game Freak? It makes the Pokemon games, so we're betting its office is a little livelier than Dunder Mifflin's. On a typical working day employees probably waste away the morning gluing abstract nouns together to see if they make a new Pokemon name and in the afternoon probably tear around the office in Bouffalant-shaped go-karts, or play volleyball with a real-life Woobat, or whatever. Just thinking about it makes us jealous, but it turns out that working at Game Freak is even more awesome than you'd think.
Periodically, members of the team are allowed to abscond from Pokemon duty to work on their own game ideas, on the company's time. Usually, nothing comes from these side-projects, but that's okay: it's more an exercise to keep the creative talent's minds sharp than anything else.
The great thing about this process for us is that when one of these projects grows into a fully fledged game, you can be sure it's going to be inventive, offbeat and patched together with love and care, which is exactly the case with HarmoKnight. It might seem saccharine and slight at first glance, but this utterly charming downloadable rhythm action title quickly whips its gloves off and delivers a challenge every bit as vicious as its boxed counterparts.
Down With The Trumpets
For the most part, HarmoKnight is a rhythmic take on the 'running man' genre that is so popular on smartphones. As Tempo sprints through the level on autopilot, you have to swipe oncoming enemies in time with the beat by tapping A, or leap over obstacles as they approach with B. The controls might be simple, but there's more than enough going on in the levels to keep your mind occupied. For instance, there are floating notes scattered around the landscape: collecting these is the key to being awarded a high rank at the end of a level. The notes chime when you run over them, adding an extra layer to the music. It's a real treat for the lugholes when you're in full flight and hitting every note on time.
Further notes can be gathered by bashing enemies with your staff, or by clubbing the percussion-fruited plants that lurk harmlessly in the background. If you're feeling particularly ninja, you can squeeze extra notes out of the level by charging your attacks before striking. Once a level has been completed you can go back and attempt it on the expert setting, which is the same, but with a quicker tempo.
It's great fun when it's on song, but some fundamental flaws prevent HarmoKnight from hitting the highest notes. The camera is zoomed in too closely for one, which makes it impossible to see what's coming up in front of you until it's time to act. To compensate, HarmoKnight spits out audio clues to let you know when enemies are approaching, but there's a discord between the beat and the timing and you'll find yourself relying heavily on visual cues. Compare this with the Rhythm Paradise series, in which action and music are so perfectly synchronised that it's possible to play some stages blindfolded.
The game is also pernickety about timing, which becomes an issue during boss battles. These play out in a similar fashion to Sega's Space Channel 5: the boss spews out timed attack patterns that must be memorised and repeated. Repeating these sequences isn't especially intuitive, since the background tunes aren't bold enough to help you establish a rhythm. This leads to frustrating difficulty spikes, but it's not enough to detract from your overall enjoyment.